Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf installed a loyalist and former spymaster as deputy army chief Monday, handpicking his successor as leader of the military in a key step to restoring civilian rule.
General Ashfaq Kiyani, who has helped spearhead the fight against Taliban and Al-Qaeda and represented the president in crunch political negotiations, took up the position Monday with a show of military pomp.
Musharraf, a key US anti-terror ally, had promised to step down as head of the Islamic republic’s nuclear-armed military if he won another five-year term in a presidential election on Saturday.
He won by a landslide, but must now wait at least nine days for the Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the election by the national parliament and provincial assemblies before the result is declared official.
Kiyani, the former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, received a guard of honour as he arrived at army headquarters in Rawalpindi, a military statement said.
“A ceremony was held at the general headquarters to formally welcome the newly appointed vice chief of army staff on assuming charge of the new appointment,” a military statement said.
“A smartly turned out contingent of the Pakistan army presented a guard of honour to the vice chief of army staff.”
The army has described Kiyani as the designated successor to Musharraf, who has been army chief since the year before he seized power in a bloodless coup in October 1999.
Since then Musharraf has come under mounting pressure from his backers in Washington and the international community for a return to democratic rule.
Musharraf himself was unharmed Monday when a military helicopter crashed as it escorted him to an earthquake anniversary ceremony in Pakistani Kashmir. Four troops were killed and Musharraf’s spokesman was wounded.
The chain-smoking Kiyani has formed good relations with the United States amid the Pakistani military’s campaign to drive Al-Qaeda and Taliban rebels from the troubled tribal belt.
In an indication of the scale of that task, at least 80 people including 20 soldiers were killed on Sunday in two major battles between Islamist insurgents and troops in the troubled North Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan.
Kiyani also led Musharraf’s side in recent power-sharing talks with former premier Benazir Bhutto, which led last week to a reconciliation agreement that gives the exiled ex-premier an amnesty on corruption charges.
He was also Bhutto’s deputy military secretary during one of her two terms in power in the late 1980s and the 1990s.
Bhutto is set to fly back to the southern city of Karachi on October 18 to lead her Pakistan People’s Party in general elections due by mid-January.
A day earlier, the Supreme Court is due to resume hearing legal challenges against the presidential election.
Analysts, however, say it is unlikely to overturn Musharraf’s overwhelming victory over two token rivals — achieved after almost the entire opposition either resigned or abstained.
By handing over the reins of the army to Kiyani as promised by November 15, the end of his current term, Musharraf would also remove one of the possible legal challenges against his eligibility for the vote.
Musharraf has been at loggerheads with the court since his botched attempt earlier this year to remove the nation’s chief justice, a move that triggered mass protests and sent the president’s popularity plummeting.
He is also battling a wave of Islamist violence unleashed when government forces stormed the Al-Qaeda-linked Red Mosque in Islamabad in July.
Kiyani was succeeded as the ISI chief last month by Nadeem Taj, who served as Musharraf’s military secretary after his 1999 coup.